Leafs’ Nylander closing in on family history with renewed swagger

Auston Matthews had a goal and an assist as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Nashville Predators 5-3.

DALLAS — By now, the footsteps should be getting awfully loud.

Michael Nylander was the first to make his family’s name over here in the NHL, but son William is on the verge of establishing some new Nylander marks. The red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs winger sits just two goals behind his father’s best season after scoring for a fifth straight game Wednesday and he’s still got more than a third of the year to go.

Now, that piece of trivia clearly carries some significance for William — “Oh really, wow. Now we’ve got to step on it here,” he said this week — but it also helps underline why the Leafs have been the NHL’s highest-scoring team by a wide margin since Sheldon Keefe took over as head coach.

Nylander is a second-line winger in Toronto and his 24 goals would currently make him the top scorer on 21 other NHL teams. Oh, and he still trails Leafs teammate Auston Matthews by a ridiculous 12 goals after he also potted one during a 5-3 victory over the Dallas Stars.

There isn’t too much mystery behind Nylander’s recent scoring binge.

You can trace it back to a road trip through Western Canada in mid-December where the 23-year-old wasn’t too happy with his play. During a meeting with Keefe that followed, the coach reinforced the need for Nylander to use his superlative ability to hang on to pucks in the offensive zone and create better looks.

“When it’s not going well for him those pucks get off his stick too quickly,” Keefe said on Dec. 20.

Now, look how much damage Nylander has done over 16 games since that meeting: 13 goals on 53 shots — a career-best stretch of 3.3 shots per game — to go with 22 points.

There is a renewed swagger to his play and he’s enjoyed almost all of that success alongside centre John Tavares, allowing Keefe to give Matthews and Mitch Marner their first extended stretch of action together on the top line.

“I mean once you’re scoring you feel confident in your shot,” Nylander explained. “I think that’s when you keep shooting the puck.”

The only shot he registered against the Stars was the one that beat Ben Bishop early in the third period — a nifty play where Nylander found a patch of open real estate at the edge of the crease and kicked the puck up to his stick.

However, that doesn’t tell the entire story of his night.

He led the Leafs in offensive zone possession time, according to Sportlogiq, which shows that he was putting his knack for transporting the puck to good use. Opponents have to respect the cross-ice pass as well as the shot when Nylander is carrying it.

“He’s got both really good attributes: He can see the ice really well and he’s got a really nice shot,” said Matthews. “I mean, a lot of his goals lately have just been coming from the net. He’s a really strong skater, he’s a strong guy.

“He’s not afraid to go to the net and obviously he’s been getting rewarded quite a bit.”

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This is why Leafs management was so insistent on keeping Nylander in the fold even while riding the highs and lows of a contract dispute with his camp last season. The easy move would have been to trade him to one of several interested suitors.

The reward for seeing things through is being realized now.

Not only does he look like a lock to surpass Michael Nylander’s career-best 26 goals, he’s got an outside chance to beat his father’s 79-point season with the New York Rangers in 2005-06 — with William now on pace for 74.

His run of high-end play has now stretched over six weeks and, while the scoring totals might not be fully sustainable, there’s reason to believe he’s simply establishing a new level of performance.

“I think there’s an opportunity for him to keep growing,” said Keefe. “From my perspective, he’s a very dangerous and talented offensive player and the more opportunities he gets he has the ability to make good on them. I don’t see this as a hot streak, necessarily.”

The Leafs can be a downright lethal opponent as a result.

They certainly made tidy work of a Stars team that entered Wednesday’s game as the stingiest outfit in the league. Marner made a high-end pass to Matthews for the opening goal and then those two flashed their skill in helping move the puck 200 feet within seconds before Zach Hyman scored another.

The goals by Nylander and Tyson Barrie came quickly off forced turnovers.

“Hey, they can score,” said Stars interim coach Rick Bowness. “Man I love their creativity, they’re great on the rush and you can see they’re making a very concerted effort to play a more structured game defensively.

“They’re a great hockey club over there.”

They’ve taken another step alongside Nylander, who is playing with confidence and starting to earn some family bragging rights.

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